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business models, strategies and technologies

“Bigger picture” angles on circular recycling systems

The whole idea of waste, recycling and circularity is ripe for serious reassessment – companies like TerraCycle and Loop are thinking big.

Recycling as a private-enterprise system

A company that seems to take the entire waste and recycling discussion a league further (and beyond just plastic) is US-based TerraCycle, which has trademarked the whole “Eliminating the Idea of Waste”, focusing on a business model that makes recycling the unrecyclable not only feasible but also desirable and profitable!

TerraCycle provides a range of free programmes that are funded by conscientious companies, as well as complete recycling solutions that companies can purchase for almost every form of waste. In one sense, this is a private-enterprise version of the public-sector recycling system already in place (albeit with imperfections galore) in many European countries.

The appropriately named TerraCycle seems to be leading the way to separating packaging from product, by providing companies with an effective ecosystem of durable, reusable containers that you return for cleaning and refilling when you’ve finished using them.

In one sense, it seems TerraCycle is providing a way for companies to “outsource” their waste collection/recycling obligations. The companies that are the source of the waste and that want to do something about it pay TerraCycle, so that TerraCycle can provide end-users with largely free-of-charge programmes. And by bringing the whole recycling multiplex together under one (aptly named) umbrella, TerraCycle seems to be able to support a surprising range of “get-involved” projects, educational schemes and community building activities. In some cases, these are combined with fund-raising opportunities that motivate charities and non-profits to get involved, and thereby scale up the whole TerraCycle ecosystem. Such scalability is, of course, a key consideration for commercial success.

Eliminating the Idea of Waste® by recycling the “non-recyclable”

Recycling the non-recyclable

But there’s nothing really new about any of the above. It’s making recycling more effective, perhaps. That’s why it’s interesting that TerraCycle has trademarked the whole “Eliminating the Idea of Waste” idea, focusing on a business model that makes recycling not only feasible but also desirable and profitable. Basically, a company transfers responsibility for dealing with the waste disposal problem from itself to TerraCycle – and pays accordingly. The company says it has solutions for just about any kind of waste stream, or can customise them to fit.

The TerraCycle Zero Waste Box solutions provide a way to deal with difficult-to-recycle waste that cannot be recycled through one of the company’s free programmes or through regular municipal recycling. But it seems that what they are really targeting is not constructing product cycles that avoid producing waste, but that pretty much all waste can be recycled – somehow – rather than ending up as landfill or in incineration plants. That’s a very different story.

The majority of TerraCycle imagery seems to focus on relatively clean, simple waste streams of the private consumer ilk that can be sent through the mail. Their capabilities for complex industrial waste – though mentioned here – seem a little sketchier, but from the viewpoint of limiting planetary impact the real interest lies in their business model, because it can provide businesses with a well-structured, effective infrastructure for doing what they know they should do – but probably don’t know how. Action is better than awareness, now is better than tomorrow.

So even TerraCycle isn’t addressing the planetary-impact issue that if stuff comes out as difficult-to-dispose-of waste at the back, it should probably never have gone in the front.

And then there’s Loop …

And then there’s the Loop solution, which describes itself as “a circular shopping platform that transforms the packaging of your everyday essentials from single-use disposable to durable, feature-packed designs”, with the whole Loop front-end message (fairly) clearly put across via a “home in your house”-scenario film – US-style.

Launching in 2019, the thinking here is that eliminating the root cause of excessive waste lies in just using things once, and that’s really what Loop tries to change as much as possible.“The major [environmental] cost of a product, whether it’s durable or disposable, is its creation – making it for the first time, extracting materials from the earth, and so on,” says Loop. Each package in the system is therefore designed for 100 or more uses, with products available through the Loop e-commerce site. Loop tote bags with the used containers get picked up from your home (free) by the increasingly omnipresent parcel delivery services on the way back – now empty – to their depots and distribution centres.

Loop is the milkman reimagined – honoring our past from a modern perspective

Loop certainly doesn’t want to invest in re-inventing the wheel. This ecosystem is mostly targeted at well-known, established brands in a wide range of fields, so consumers can shop their favourite brands in a (perceived) waste-free way. Guilty consciences saved all round.

For consumers, the process is designed to be as seamless as possible. The aim isn’t to get consumers to alter their purchasing and consumption habits, but instead to create systems that help tackle the big issues, whilst letting people keep within their comfort zones.

Icing on the cake?

Both Terracycle and Loop are attractively packaged, “whole platform” solutions that seem to mobilise the best corporate capabilities along with key features of “responsible” brand identity, all at the nice, clean end of the recycling/waste reduction discussion.

But, for example, the Loop push to move from single-use to durable, multi-use, feature-packed designs – though laudable and including new ways of perceiving consumer goods packaging – doesn’t really get to grips with the manufacturing and output end of our waste streams. The Terracycle and Loop models are great “patches” and plasters for a sick patient, but lack the truly transformational element to make sure the planet patient doesn’t get sick(er) in the first place …